In part one of my series on Iowa Wine, I explored the very short history behind the Iowa wine industry. Today, I’ll go over a few of the more popular varieties in the area along with my personal experiences with each wine.
A * denotes facts and information gleaned from the Iowa State Review of Cold Climate Cultivars. All other information provided came from Royce Bennett of Collectively Iowa or from my own experience in the tasting.
St. Pepin is a variety cultivated by Elmer Swenson in 1983 in Osceola, Wisconsin. A pistillate variety (meaning only the female parts of a fruit-bearing vine are fully developed), St. Pepin requires proximity to a developed vine to pollinate and bear fruit*. It makes a very light, delicate wine, and the lack of acidity makes the wine almost always cloying and underwhelming in an off-dry style.
The St. Pepin I tasted was made by Royce in his personal Vines and Wine line (NV). It was bone dry, light-bodied, with an attack primarily of minerals. It had a fairly impressive complexity with light tropical and stone fruit flavors. Though it started off tame, the flavors became richer and smoother towards the finish, which was longer than I expected. Definitely a good summer sipper.
Edelweiss was developed in 1955 by Elmer Swenson in Osceola, Wisconsin, a hybrid of riparia (Frost Grape) and labrusca (Fox Grape) varieties*. Unlike traditional wine varieties, Eidelweiss must be harvested before it fully ripens. Ideally, it is harvested around 12º to 13º Brix. At full ripeness, roughly 18º Brix, it loses its wine descriptors and develops a flat foxy, grape-y flavor. It’s a difficult grape to maintain. With an early bud break and poor productivity from secondary buds, late frosts can very easily ruin a year’s crop*.
The Edelweiss I tasted was from Prairie Crossing Vineyards (NV). It had a massive attack of Granny Smith apple, crisp and pure. It was slightly off-dry, decently balanced, with a medium peach finish. It was fairly simple, but the flavor was clean.
Frontenac was developed by the University of Minnesota from 1978 to 1983 in Excelsior, Minnesota. It is a very vigorous, hardy vine that demands a lot of attention as it grows*. For years, it was harvest during its perceived ripeness peak and pressed to make an aggressively acidic, cherry-flavored wine. In recent years, experiments have revealed that letting the grape sit on the vine roughly a week past peak ripeness drastically softens the acidity, creating a richer, more nuanced experience.
The first Frontenac I tasted was a Vines and Wine label (NV). It was created in the traditional Frontenac style, with a bright cherry flavor, rather plummy, with a VERY high acidity and a short finish. It was in line with most Frontenacs I’ve tried, though I’m excited to see how the new “overripe” Frontenac wines will taste.
The second Frontenac I tasted was from Prairie Crossing (NV). It had a full flavor, again, a typical high acidity, though the character of this wine was softened by a medium level of old American oak, leaving it with a slightly medicinal flavor but nowhere near as harsh as most Frontenacs I’ve tasted. The flavor was simple, a brisk, tart, spicy cherry. This was definitely in the higher end of Iowa reds I’ve tasted.
St. Croix was developed by Elmer Swenson in 1981 in Osceola, Wisconsin. It’s an extremely thin-skinned grape, prone to leaking and very susceptible to disease and injury*. Grapes tend to have a moderate acidity and low Brix and tannins, giving it a natural affinity for palates attuned to Burgundy wines*. It’s a surprisingly hardy vine, recorded as surviving temperatures as low as -39º F and safe down to roughly -28º F, though snow cover significantly improves its chances of survival*.
I had the good fortune of trying two St. Croix varietal wines, and I’m convinced it will be the flagship red wine grape for the Iowa wine industry.
The first St. Croix I tried was from Royce’s Vines and Wine (NV). It had a wonderful potpourri bouquet, descriptors of cinnamon, nutmeg, dark floral, and blackberry. A light tobacco quality sat on the finish. Very rustic and aromatic, though with a surprisingly light body. It was like drinking the scent of a burning candle, and I mean that in the best way.
The second St. Croix I tried was the Wagon Trail Red from Prairie Crossing (NV). If you want to get me excited about the future of Iowa wine, this will do it. The presence of red fruit on this wine was so bare as to hardly even need mentioning. The experience was all violets and spices. There was oak, but it was skillfully introduced, tasting as a component of the spices than as a separate flavor. Like the other St. Croix, the descriptors were hefty and perfume-y, but the wine itself was light and delicate. An absolutely brilliant, unique experience.
LaCrosse was developed by Elmer Swenson in 1983 in Osceola, Wisconsin from a staggering array of species, including V. vinifera, V. labrusca, V. riparia, V. rupestris, and V. lincecumii*. As Royce told me, it’s a very foxy, finicky grape that invariably produces a wine with a “raunchy” aftertaste. It’s fairly frost resistant as its bud break is mid-season, and it can produce fruit from secondary buds.
The LaCrosse I tasted was from Row 13 Vineyards. It was a very light fruity, floral affair, with apricot and citrus flavors. This wine did not have that peculiar aftertaste, and Royce told me it was because LaCrosse tends to lose that flavor in blends. To produce a varietal wine without that flavor, the winemaker blended the fermented juice with just a touch of unfermented juice from the same grapes. The science behind this baffles me, but the finish was clean and fruity.
Tannins are hard to come by in Iowa. You’ll stub your toe on a thousand tractors before you find a big red here. There’s just not enough sunshine and heat to develop these wines.
You’ll have to dig in to find dry wines. The local palate, raised on sweet, skunky German-style fruit wines, guarantees that most local wines, even the reds, will be made off-dry / semi-sweet. These wines are so delicate that the sugar utterly destroys the quality of the wine. The good news is more and more winemakers are attempting to get the most out of their grapes, and the results are encouraging.
Expect the unexpected. Not to sound dramatic, of course, but you’re not going to find a Cabernet Sauvignon, Riesling, Pinot Noir, or Sauvignon Blanc here. If you do, it’s imported juice. So don’t fret if you don’t recognize any of the grapes on the tasting sheet… they’re still good wines, and there’s still something for most palates there.
The future of Iowa wine depends on newer, more suitable varieties that will be cultivated in the area, though the current industry has been built on traditional grapes. Royce has seen this dichotomy in the preference for the Alsatian Marechal Foch, a decent grape in its own right but one with very limited potential (as in, you’ll live a thousand years before you see a wine scored 90 points from this grape in this area) over its underused, richer sibling Leon Millot (Lay-own Mee-yoh). As winemakers figure out the challenges to growing old varieties and the science behind the new ones, the industry will begin to receive notice from the coastal wine drinkers. For now, the limits of total production, suitable varieties, and overall quality make Iowa wine an unpolished gem in the Midwestern wine industry.